Spelman College’s Spelbots team is debunking the myth about typical geeks and inspiring young girls to pursue a degree in STEM

In November, I had the opportunity to meet and work with the famed Spelman College Spelbots team at the UAF Hackthon. Yes, the Spelbots team is as impressive as advertised. I had the front row seat to watching the team assemble robots from scratch, build a business model around their robotics product and deliver a riveting business pitch. I was extremely impressed by agility and versatility of the team on both STEM and business topics. I commend Spelman College for creating and producing the archetype of the student for the innovation economy.

In the Spelbots program, Spelman College has created a template for introducing students to STEM in new and exciting ways. Not only are students reading about robotics but they are learning how to build and code robots and they are not stopping there, they are also creating startups that solve real problems using robotics (see interview below). Spelman College is connecting all the components of the value chain of a STEM education, via a single program. In my opinion, institutions and organizations that are serious about encouraging STEM among minority students should give Spelman College’s Spelbots program a serious look. They are doing it right at Spelman.

Spelbots Team assembling a robot

Introducing students, especially minority students, to STEM via exciting areas like robotics as Spelman College is doing could have a significant and lasting impact. I would love for more people to know about this gem of a program, so I took time to interview Jazette Johnson of the Spelbots Team to learn more about the program focusing on how they are connecting their robotics experience with entrepreneurship.

Startups Illustrated: What problem are you solving? Jazette Johnson: We want to improve the social experience of bedridden children in the hospitals. These children face many problems including social isolation when being bedridden because of a particular illness or injury.

SI: What is the solution? JJ: Our solution is to bring happiness into children hospital rooms by allowing the child to interact with the world outside of his/her room.

SI: What is your product? JJ: Our product is BedXplorer. A robotic car that can be controlled from the child’s hospital room by just the tilt of their phone or tablet. A real time video is streamed on the tablet to show the environment around the robot.


SI: What is everyone else in your market not getting? Why are you different/What’s your unique value proposition? JJ: Research shows that to decrease anxiety and fears in hospitalized children, children hospitals need to be more child-centered. Today, hospitals use colorful walls and teddy bears, but for the 21st century child over the age of 5 these things are not helpful. So, BedXplorer brings technology into the hospital to occupy the child’s mind.

SI: How big is the market? JJ: We are looking at 3 million children who are hospitalized every year. Each of these children has a parent that spends at least $100 on technology a year. The parent can now use the $100 on technology for technology to improve their child’s social interaction within the hospital.

SI: Bed Explorer technology looks like it can be applied in other markets. What are the other markets that you have your eye on? JJ: Yes there are many other markets we are want to eventually migrate BedXplorer towards. These markets include search and rescue, the general toy market, and home use for disabled children and adults.

SI: I was really impressed when I saw your team with a soldering iron putting the Bed Explorer robot together on site at the UAF Hackathon. Did you build Bed Explorer from scratch? What does it take to do that? JJ: Yes, we built BedXplorer from scratch using the laser cutter and many other tools inside our Innovation Lab at Spelman College.

Assembling and writing code for BedXplorer

SI: What is the technology behind Bed Explorer. At a high level can you take us inside the magic of BedXplorer. JJ: BedXplorer is controlled using the internal gyroscope of your phone. The gyroscope values are transferred at each position using bluetooth on your phone to a bluetooth chip on the Arduino microprocessor. We programmed the Arduino to read in those values and turn the servo motors (car wheels) to particular position depending on the values.

SI: What are the technical skills required on the hardware side and on the software side? What are the programming languages that you are using? JJ: On the hardware side you just need basic knowledge of circuits. It may be surprising, but this was our first time dealing with hardware of a robot.

SI: Tell us more about the Spelbots team. How did it get started? Who is on the team? JJ: Spelbots is the first all women, all African-American team to qualify and compete in the international RoboCup competition. RoboCup is a competition where graduate and undergraduate students program robots to play soccer. One of our main missions is debunk the myth about typical geeks and inspire young girls to pursue a degree in a STEM related field. The SpelBots team is comprised of ten young ladies who have a passion for STEM. I joined Spelbots my freshman year as a club member working on outreach projects. With hard work and dedication I was put on the team my sophomore year. I have been on the SpelBots team for 2 years.

SI: What does it take to be on the Spelbots team? JJ: Being a SpelBots team member takes a lot of time a dedication.

SI: What inspired your interest in robotics? JJ: Since the age of nine I have been always interested in technology because of my mother who explained how to install and use different applications on the computer. I just wanted to know how it all worked. Robotics just came with the territory of me wanting to know how all technology worked.

SI: What advice would you give someone who is interested in robotics. What is the best way to get started? JJ: You must be sure about what you want to do because it takes a lot of time and dedication to be in STEM. Sometimes you may feel everything is going wrong, but you must be dedicated to continue on.

SI: What is the future of the BedXplorer, the Spelbots team and yourself? JJ: The next steps for BedXplorer is to test it’s effectiveness in market by conducting user studies with local children hospitals to evaluate it’s effectiveness. I plan attend graduate school to obtain my doctoral degree in Human Computer Interaction, so I can continue to develop technologies to improve the lives of others.

SI: Thank you. JJ: My pleasure!

Originally published at www.startupsillustrated.com on December 18, 2014.

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